Sunday, February 18, 2018

Best of 2017, Runner-Up #6: Call Me By Your Name

This is a good, old-fashioned coming of age romance. Beautifully shot and acted.  It felt like Truffaut.

Let’s talk about a twist on the “I understand you” scene: Call it the “I don’t understand you but I find that somewhat sexy” scene.

Both of our potential lovers are intellectual Jewish American young men enjoying a lazy summer in Italy, so they have a lot in common, but they’re also separated by temperament and age. They spend most of the movie circling each other and only get together late in the story.

Early on there’s a great scene where the older one, Oliver, begins to be smitten with the younger one, Elio, who plays a Bach composition on the guitar, and then, by request, plays it on the piano a few times.

  • ELIO plays the piece on the piano. OLIVER leans on the door looking in. The music sounds very different from when he played it on his guitar.
  • You changed it. What did you do to it? Is it Bach?
  • ELIO
  • I just played it the way Liszt would have played it if he’d jimmied around with it.
  • Just play it again, please!
  • ELIO begins playing the piece again. OLIVER listens, then speaks:
  • I can’t believe you changed it again.
  • ELIO
  • Not by much. That’s how Busoni would've played it if he’d altered Liszt’s version.
  • Can’t you just play the Bach the way Bach wrote it?
  • ELIO
  • Bach never wrote it for guitar. In fact, we’re not even sure it’s Bach at all.
  • OLIVER Forget I asked.
  • ELIO
  • Okay, okay. No need to get so worked up.
  • ELIO begins to play the Bach in its original form. OLIVER, who had turned away, comes back to the door. ELIO says, softly, over his playing:
  • It’s young Bach, he dedicated it to his brother.
  • He plays it beautifully, as if sending it to OLIVER as a gift. 

Oliver isn’t just flirting, he’s genuinely frustrated by Elio’s intellectually-bratty explanations for the changes: He’s annoyed, but he’s also intrigued and bewitched. Elio is now a puzzle he wants to solve.  Crucially, we feel the same way.  Who would not be both repelled and attracted by this brilliant-but-arrogant kid?   The best romances are those in which we can see and feel contradictory reasons for the romance to succeed and not succeed, along with the heroes. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Best of 2017 Runner-Up #7: Dunkirk

I didn’t see this movie until it came out on DVD, and I knew very little about it. All I knew was that it was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, that it had four movie stars in it, and that it told the story of the Dunkirk invasion in many locations: on the beaches, in the air, and on the water. Based on these three facts, I naturally assumed that it was going to be another bloated 3 hour mess, with lots of Churchill speeches, etc.

It wasn’t until I got the DVD in the mail that I was shocked to see a 106 minute runtime. Had Nolan actually made a non-bloated movie?? When I watched it, I discovered that it did have some of Nolan’s usual problems:

  • As usual, the cinematography was too muddy, which meant that I couldn’t tell the two black-haired beach-heroes apart, and I also couldn’t tell whose plane was whose in the aerial dogfights.
  • It’s got yet another overbearing Hans Zimmer score…

But the movie works, and even Zimmer’s score works. Because so many stretches of the movie were dialogue-free, Zimmer had enough room to play, for once. How did Nolan make such a slim, elegant movie, after making so many messes?

  • We have three stories, but they’re all based around the same event. To do this, he mixes up the chronology, creating a gradual realization for the viewer that the three locations are on slightly different timelines. One storyline happens over the course of two days, one over a day, and one over an hour or two. I’m not crazy about this, because I never fully understood it, but it undeniably makes for an exciting movie. Each storyline gets a nice mix of action and silent stretches in a hypnotic pattern.
  • He’s tapping into modern-day national pain, both in England and America. Once again, it feels like the Nazis are winning, making it all the more terrifying to see the moment they seemed to win the war in the last century.  It’s a timely reminder that the Nazis weren’t destined to lose by the tide of history: They almost won, and in the end they only lost because a bunch of people fought really hard.  
  • Almost every Nolan movie before this had its fair share of ludicrous plotting (which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t.) I didn’t think he could handle reality. He must have found it very liberating to have a movie where didn’t have to constantly ask himself, “will they buy this next plot turn?” He’s not selling anything, so he’s not falling all over himself. He knows we’ll accept it, so he relaxes.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Best of 2017: Runners Up #10, 9, and 8

Spoilers Abound!
#10: The Post. I don’t have much to say about it. Spielberg, Hanks and Streep are all somewhat on auto-pilot, but each is very talented, so that’s not the worst thing. Longtime readers will know that I have my problems with Spielberg, but he’s got good meaty material here and makes the most out of it.
#9: The Big Sick. Again, not much to say. A very moving, very funny film. I will say that Still’s Disease is one of many that I’ve had. I didn’t go into a coma but it was very unpleasant .
#8: The Shape of Water. An overpraised movie, and nothing I hadn’t seem before, but still a lot of fun, gorgeous to look at, and a welcome showcase for the talents of Sally Hawkins. It reminds me of this recent rule:

The Value of the Baby in the Basket: Will audiences accept a movie in which a janitor enters into a sexual relationship with a fish-creature? Yes and no. This movie plays with the idea of interspecies sex, but then reveals at the end that no, she’s actually a merperson herself, so it’s cool. It turns out that she’s a literal baby in a basket: She was found on the shore, and those marks on her neck everybody assumed were scratches were actually gills. At first she just seems like a random everywoman, but then we find out she’s got a benighted destiny that the movie is fulfilling. Like all baby in a basket stories, the movie is having it both ways, letting us identify with an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, then, when that’s stretched credibility too far, assuring us that no, this is an extraordinary person merely fulfilling her destiny. It’s also a cheat that allows our star-crossed lovers to be together after all. It works in a fairy-tale-ish sort of way, but not as drama, because it’s too neat.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Didn’t Make the Best of 2017 List: Logan, Blade Runner 2049, and The Last Jedi

Warning: Spoilers abound!
Time for a confession: James and I actually recorded a podcast episode where we debated the merits of The Last Jedi, but I sounded way too sour and inarticulate so I shelved it. I feel bad about that, because James was very passionate and well-spoken in his praise for the movie, but the episode was ultimately off-brand: Just 90 minutes of me saying “shitty” over and over, without any discussion of writing advice. But let me admit now that I was really bowled over by his enthusiasm. I just kept saying “I wish I’d seen the movie you saw.”

As for the movie I saw, it seemed to fit in with two other acclaimed sci-fi sequels this year, and I pretty much loathed all three. The three movies shared three unforgivable sins:

Too damn long: Logan was 137 minutes, Blade Runner 2049 was 164, The Last Jedi was 152. There was no reason for any of these movies to be longer than two hours. Both Logan and The Last Jedi came to a logical end around the 100 minute mark and then just kept going and going. The Last Jedi had two massive subplots (the casino planet and the mutiny) that just fizzled out and had no effect on the story.

Too disrespectful of the original: It was bizarre how similar Logan and The Last Jedi were:

  • Both were the ninth movies in their respective sagas.
  • Both undid everything good that had happened in the previous eight movies.
  • Both had the hero of the first three movies die miserably.
  • Both had a very specific plot point in common: A beloved character from the previous movies was running a school for superpowered teens but saw that school destroyed when he turned murderous towards his own student(s), so now he lives as a secluded hermit.

Ultimately, this is what all discussions of The Last Jedi come down to. Does a new writer/director have the right to come in for movie #9 and ruin all the happiness of the previous 8 movies? There were a lot of reasons to dislike this movie, but I think this was the biggest reason for the backlash. For a lot of viewers, including me, the answer is simply no. The easiest thing to do is take something that someone else has built up and tear it down. If you want to destroy value, destroy your own value, not someone else’s.

(These three movies made me appreciate Gene Luen Yang’s brilliant “Avatar: The Last Airbender” sequel graphic novels even more. He seems to have set himself the rule that he couldn’t in any way undo the happy ending of the series: The couples can’t break up, the villains can’t escape, evil can’t rise again, etc. So how do you tell good stories with those constraints? Well, it’s hard, but Yang is a great writer, so he pulls it off beautifully.)

No fun: Reading the glowing reviews of these movies was a pretty baffling experience for me. Doesn’t anybody want to have any fun anymore? The previous movies in these series were enjoyable. (Okay, not the previous two Wolverine movies, but this was more of a sequel to X2 or Days of Future Past, both of which were fun). These three movies were grim, airless slogs, especially Blade Runner 2049. I wasn’t just checking my watch because they were too long, but because all three bored me out of my mind. Even The Force Awakens, which I had a lot of problems with, was at least lively and buoyant. Empire Strikes Back was dark, but Yoda was delightful. There was nothing to love about these three movies, which is a problem, because there was a lot to dislike.

So just as I was loathe to post the podcast, I’m loathe to post this post, because my goal is never to just be sour and complain-y, especially about things that other people loved, but boy oh boy I disliked these movies. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Interview on the "On Grit" Podcast

Hi guys, let’s delay the post that was going to go up today until tomorrow, because we have something neat instead. I don’t consider myself to be a particularly gritty guy, but Rigel Patterson at the podcast “On Grit” read my book and wanted to talk to me about my advice and my experiences. I talk too fast and I’m (as always) too negative about some things, but Rigel’s a good interviewer and we have some good discussions. Give it a listen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Best of 2017 Introduction, and Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Hi guys! So it was a pretty good year for movies. Unlike previous years, where my list had lots of idiosyncratic choices, my list is mostly Oscar nominees this year. I don’t know if this means that I’m changing or the Oscars are, but I suspect it’s the latter. My top two probably wouldn’t have been nominees in previous years.

As usual, I’ll mention the movies I haven’t seen first: The Darkest HourIt, Atomic Blonde, Logan Lucky, MotherDownsizing, and others I’m not thinking of.

How we’re going to do it this year is first we’re going to talk about four movies that didn’t make the list (one today, three tomorrow), then I’ll talk about five runners-up (for three days), then I’ll do my top five (with maybe a couple of days on #1). So let’s start with:
Didn’t Make the List: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

There’s a lot to like about this movie, especially Frances McDormand’s fierce and funny performance, but boy oh boy did it fall apart. Here are three problems:

Moral murkiness: People have been saying that this is a prescient “MeToo” movie, but is it? Going in, I only knew that this was a movie about a righteous mother who was upset that the police had made no arrests in the rape and murder of her daughter. Based on that, I assumed that this was going to be the case where everybody knew a rich man’s son did it, but the cops wouldn’t arrest him for political reasons. Instead it was a very different movie, where it quickly became clear that a good cop had really exhausted every angle of the case and just came up short.

This is in some ways a braver choice, but it means that the movie actually feels more emblematic of the MeToo backlash: A woman is so upset about a rape that (according to one conversation in the movie) she wants to throw civil rights and due process out the window and now she’s lashing out at her own allies and hurting her own cause! Not surprisingly, this is a movie written by a man.

Not the way the world works: There’s nothing inherently wrong with wading into morally murky territory like that, but it’s a tricky line to walk, and this movie drunkenly veers all over it. McDormand’s character starts off with the notion that this police department is too scared to make arrests, but soon she’s taking advantage of that to a ludicrous degree. The first hint is when she viciously hurts the dentist and the police let her go, but then she firebombs the police station and the cops don’t care! (A cop later confirms that they knew she did it, as of course they would.)  That’s not the way the world works. Not to mention that one of the cops engages in an assault so egregious that it’s crazy he doesn’t get arrested, even in a corrupt town. It’s ludicrously over the top.

The Sorkin Stammer: But this is what I most dislike about the movie. The movie is in some ways critical of McDormand’s self-righteousness, but at other times it indulges it to an annoying degree, pitting her against stammering straw men in a way that’s supposed to make us stand up and cheer but just made me roll my eyes. Nothing is worse that her denunciation of the priest, who just sits there sputtering, letting her score all the points. Here’s the thing about priests: they love to be denounced. That’s their comfort zone. They’ve trained their whole lives for that.  I didn’t buy it.  Always avoid the Sorkin stammer.

Tomorrow: Three acclaimed sci-fi movies

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Best of the Year: The Archive

So here I am back, but now before we get to another book it’s time for my seventh annual round up of the best movies of the year and what can be learned from each. When I was archiving old posts last year, I never archived these, partly because I’m a little embarrassed by some of the old choices.

At first I was focused on Hollywood movies and preferably those based on spec scripts, because the site was primarily for spec script writers. Eventually I lamented that the spec market had died, and then finally I gave up on the idea of focusing on just Hollywood movies and started including indies too, which meant that my lists started closely resembling the Oscar nominees. As is my bent, however, I kept favoring fun Hollywood fare above grim indie features, which made me look like a heartless chucklehead at times.

As a result, there are a lot of Hollywood comedies here that are justifiably forgotten today (Date Night? The Campaign??) and a lot of beloved indie movies that I look like an asshole for not putting at number one in their respective years (in some cases, I specifically look like a racist asshole). But what can I say, folks, I called ‘em like I saw ‘em! Feel free to make fun of me for some of these...

Best of 2010:
Best of 2011:
I didn’t write up 3 and 2 because Cedar Rapids had already been an underrated movie, and I'd already done a week of posts about Apes:
Best of 2012:
Best of 2013: 
For my #1 movie, American Hustle, I started off with a series of posts comparing the movie to the truly awful screenplay that originally sold, before I finally wrote it up:
Best of 2014:
Best of 2015: I did something new this year, I compared the top three movies to their books, giving me a chance to talk about the nature of prose and adaptation.
I followed that up with three more pieces about The Martian:
Then I finally got to the first movie: 
I followed that with two more rules gleaned from The Big Short
Best of 2016:
I followed that up with a series on the plotting in Zootopia:

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Hunger Games: The Archive

Let’s do one last post before the holidays to archive the Hunger Games posts I’ve done over the years:

But I had lots of posts before that as well (and most of them were a lot more critical than my recent posts):